“Ability without honor has no value.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
In Emerson’s time during the 19th century there was a high value placed on the idea that ladies and gentlemen of society did things with honor. This meant that there was a right and wrong way for a person to conduct his or her self as they went about their daily business. Concepts such as chivalry were more than just a passing notion. Men really did hold doors for ladies. Ladies really did conduct themselves with decorum in public. But honor went beyond these simple concepts of politeness. Honor meant that business affairs, the raising of children, even the methods of war were done with a sense of integrity. To win was less important than to win correctly.
Much has changed since Emerson died some 130 years ago. In that interceding time two world wars have been fought. There have been numerous financial crises that crippled large and small economies alike. Desperation has set in to vast swaths of society. Many people of means have stopped caring about those without, focusing only on their stake in life. And as a result honor has suffered.
Sports have evolved along the way as well. Baseball in the 19th century was a game played by gentlemen, and by a set of rules of which only some were written. Many of those which became the “unwritten” rules of the game didn’t need to be codified because the men playing the game knew that they were about how to conduct themselves with honor. But my first love in sports has had its reputation sullied by a “win at all cost” attitude that spawned PED usage and styles of play that ignored the gentlemanly aspect of the game.
In sports in general the in vogue attitude became “if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying”, a concept that would have been anathema to a person in Emerson’s time. Often I will hear analysts of all the major sports talking about what players can “get away with” on the field of play without the officials catching or penalizing them.
I am no fan of the sport of Golf, but it stands out as the lone exception to the rule. Golf is still governed by the rule of honor. A player who violates a rule on the course, even if they are not caught by the officials or the cameras, will regularly turn themselves in, even if the violation was very minor and inconsequential to the outcome. When incidents like this happen, the common observers often scoff at the player, but those who value honor applaud the act.
The world of sports is not the only place where honor has taken a back seat to results. The world of business is the same way. Sadly, even lives away from work are affected by this lack of honor. People push the limits wherever they can to gain an edge, and the worker, spouse or parent who toes the line of honor is often left behind.
Recently I bought a piece of furniture at Ikea. It was a rack that we put into a closet, with four mesh metal bins that slide in and out like drawers. When I made my purchase I used the self-serve line at the checkout to save some time. Later that week when I was assembling the piece I realized that I had 5 of the mesh bins. I checked my receipt and saw that, indeed, I had paid for only 4. It would have been very easy to just keep the 5th bin and find some use for it around the house. It would have been equally easy to take it to the return counter – receipt in hand – and ask for a refund, which they unquestionably would have given me. To me, though, both of those would have been an act of stealing. I would never have been caught in either act, but it would have been wrong. So, I took time on a Saturday and drove back to Ikea to return the bin. The look on the face of the gal at the counter was incredulity. She was taken somewhat aback that I would be returning the bin. I told her that I didn’t pay for it, and it wasn’t mine. Then I turned and walked away.
I don’t tell this story to lift myself on a pedestal. I have had my share of mistakes in life, and have done some terrible things. But of all the terrible things I have done, those that compromised my honor I regret the most, even those for which I was never caught.
My wife and I worked hard to raise our children with a sense of honor. All 4 of our children were involved in Scouting, where both the boy’s and girl’s oaths start with the phrase “On my honor…”.
Honor matters in life. With honor I know that I can lay my head down at night and rest easily. Without it, my head is constantly on a swivel wondering what may be creeping up on me. I may not always win, and I may not always find success. There are times when I could be more successful if I were more ruthless and ignored my personal code of honor, but those victories and successes would be hollow and meaningless to me.
Today is Easter Sunday, a time to reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus. I can think of no better day to remind myself of the need for honor in life, and to continue to be dedicated to that code.